Review: The Unthanks – Diversions Volume 1

The Unthanks describe Diversions Volume I: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Anthony & the Johnsons as an exercise to bring them closer to the music they love. As a good writer is encouraged to read the work of other writers, a good musician should play the music of other musicians. They’ve released this live album, recorded at London’s Union Chapel, whilst in the middle of writing their next record. It’s a showcase of their favourite work by Robert Wyatt and Anthony & The Johnsons and one in a collection of albums that they’ve called Diversions, intended to document the journey they’re taking as musicians.

The songs they’ve chosen have stories that interlink with the band, such as For Today I Am A Boy, which is accompanied by an amusing little story from one of the sisters.  You Are My Sister is an apt and emotional song about the bond that sisters share. Dondestan, self described as ‘a cheerful little song about homelessness’ is the most upbeat song, its music in stark contrast to its subject matter. It’s an edgy tribute to two artists they admire, but they aren’t merely copying the songs, they’ve added their own edge and unique style to them. The sisters’ sing like ethereal nymphs and something about the sound will have you thinking of natural landscapes and green pastures. They have a truly beautiful and unique sound; taking inspiration from an eclectic mix of artists, with a hint of old English folklore, there’s very little like them around.

Starting off as an all-female band, Rachel Unthanks and the Winterset changed their name to The Unthanks in 2009 and added two male members to the band. They’ve already created a whirlwind of excitement around them with their talent; among other things they’ve been named as the Independent’s Gig of the Year 2010, been nominated for the Mercury Awards and were awarded Folk Album of the Year by MOJO. It’s not hard to see why…they’re a talented bunch who obviously enjoy performing; they are so at ease with their audience, laughing and joking with them in between songs.

My only reservation about this album is that unless you’re acquainted with the work of Robert Wyatt or Anthony & the Johnsons, this won’t become a well loved record in your collection. The album also requires a bit of attention when listening, to avoid the songs blurring into one another. That said, it can’t be denied that this is an incredibly gifted and unique band and I very much look forward to their next offering.

Sara West